It was a dark and crowded evening at Canteen Brewhouse last week when I sat down with head brewer Zach Guilmette and general manager Jamie Schwebach for our latest entry in the annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series. Before the Porter Draw took the stage next to our table, we went over the ups and downs of 2021, and gazed forward to what they hope will be a more stable 2022.
“I think the last year has given us a lot of conversations of who are we as a company,” Schwebach said. “What do we want to do as a company? Who are we as a crew? How do we make sure our crew is happy? How can we make sure we take care of our staff and takes care of our customers and works around other things? We had to pivot, and we’re still pivoting. We’re tired of pivoting, but I’m glad we can pivot.”
Just like everyone else, Canteen was stuck mainly in a to-go-only state at the beginning of 2021 and then into the early spring. The one good thing that came from that period, which was in many ways just an extension of 2020, was that it gave Guilmette the chance to expand the brewery’s lineup of canned offerings.
“I think having Flashback IPA, High Plains Pils, and some of these house beers we hadn’t canned before, it was kind of exciting,” he said. “Even though we knew we were doing it just to survive, it was something we planned to do in the future, this just forced our hands. It showed us that people would love to take even house beers home in cans. It was (fortuitous) for us. Even when we kind of pull out of this to some sort of normalcy, we’re still going to have a lot of these specials and house beers in cans.”
“I think it was a good thing that our hand was forced,” Schwebach added.
“Just seeing so many small, niche offerings in cans, that’s what was nice,” Guilmette said. “Working with our design team of Andrew and Anna Martinez, Jamie and myself, having small runs of specials, that’s what I thought was fun. Owning the canning line allowed us to do 50- to 60-case runs. Small runs you would never do if you working with a distributor. You want to do a lot of volume. It’s fun to be able to offer 50 to 60 cases of one small, niche special, that we had never (canned) before, it was only available on draft.”
When things opened up again in late May, Canteen got back to its roots as a brewpub.
“We had to remember that we like humans. We like humans, we love them all,” Schwebach said with a wry smile. “It was a lot of managing expectations, and reminding all of us that everyone had gone through something, and was still going through something. It was retraining ourselves to be kind and courteous, and managing people who had not been out (since before March 2020), and trying to make a space that was safe and comfortable for people. We were fortunate that we were able to create a good outside space where people could come with their entire family.”
In addition to working again with a heavy load of customers on site, there was also the need to take care of the brewery staff.
“For me in the brewery it was getting more hours for the guys, the same guys that have been with me for years are still here, they stuck it out,” Guilmette said. “I remember at the beginning of this year I was still looking to get them full-time work. So much has changed. The front of the house, it was not just about finding help, it was finding people who wanted to come back to work. After being slow for over a year, it was ramping back up and having the manpower, while also meeting the (needs of the) people who were coming back out to drink.”
Like other breweries around town, those in management found themselves paying a little extra attention to the needs of staff members who, in the past, probably never had anyone ask them about their mental health status.
“Being more aware of our employees’ mental health and be able to understand what they need,” Guilmette said. “It’s been a good lesson for us, working towards a balance for our employees between work and life. It’s still a challenge.”
“Before all this, we didn’t have many of those conversations,” Schwebach said. “It’s like, are your working too much, are our customers impacting you, how is the job impacting you, are you getting what you need?
“We’re so thankful for our crew. The guys in the back are amazing. They hung out and did everything we needed to to brew beer and increase production. Our kitchen staff just hustles through it. The front-of-house staff is willing to pivot every day. We’re very thankful for that. It’s great to see.”
Guilmette was able to keep his brewing team of Doug Cochran, Ben Lenetsky, and Mike Kaliber together, saving him from the fate of other head brewers around town who had to rebuild their staffs in the middle of a global pandemic.
“Yeah, even before the pandemic I was appreciative of the willingness of my guys to want to stay here and work, but even more so now,” Guilmette said. “I see and hear from other brewers around town the challenge of filling open positions. A lot of times, too, there’s a lack of experience in the applications coming in. I’m very fortunate to have the three guys I have working for me, so I try to make (sure they know I) appreciate them as much as I can.”
The front-of-house staff was scaled back during the to-go-only/patio-only days, so Schwebach had to get to work on that at a time when servers and, particularly, kitchen staff were hard to find.
“We were down to a really slim staff,” Schwebach said. “Some have moved onto other jobs, other careers, whatever they’re doing. But, we’ve got a really great crew right now. They work well together, communicate well, and are willing to help each other, which is great.”
Over the summer, Canteen was able to get back to everything it does best, from organizing events to support local nonprofits, to getting music back on stage every Thursday and Sunday with the support of Jams of Enchantment, which handles the music booking.
“Our focus for the last six months has been just local music,” Schwebach said. “It’s just fortunate that most of those folks, those bands were still around. It’s been great, they’ve all brought different things to the stage. We’ve been able to offer some different styles of music, a lot of eclectic (bands) for different crowds.”
Then the boat got stuck in the Suez Canal, and all of a sudden, those little supply chain disruptions/delays became prominent for just about everyone in the industry.
“Fortunately at our size we haven’t had any detrimental effects of those delays,” Guilmette said. “We know they’re out there, but we’ve been able to plan around it. I think we’re still waiting here for that to take a bigger effect, and more importantly, too, the rising cost of everything. How do we address that? The biggest impact for us is just adjusting to the cost of grain, hops, ingredients in general, and cans. Supply and demand for us, we’ve been fortunate we’ve been able to get what we need on time.”
Schwebach said the front of house has had to deal with issues with food availability and delivery times, as well as things that would normally seem innocuous, like paper products suddenly not being available in the needed quantities.
Much like the brewery team, they have had to adjust on the fly.
“On that note, we’ve definitely ordered more pallets of cans than we’ve needed in the past to have them in the future,” Guilmette said. “As well as pallets of pilsner malt, just to make sure you have that extra inventory to get your throw another month or two months.”
As Guilmette said, the supply chain issues were not as disruptive for him and his team. They were able to churn through a lot of beers in cans that they had never before packaged, but back during the more restrictive periods, it left them unable to create new beers to put on tap and gauge the public response.
“Yeah, definitely realizing that during 2020 that we’re a pub first, and we’re growing our distribution, but without people here drinking the beer I can’t brew as much, (make) as many specials and turn the tanks around,” Guilmette said. “This year we’ve been able to turn the specials around and create more beer. In the spring, I really enjoyed being able to brew the (Sundance) Kolsch again and put that in cans for the first time. We brought Citranova back in the spring. Oh, the Helles Awaits was definitely fun, especially getting some cool labels for that can. Then we got a new hazy beer, Hazy Vision Double IPA, that was a fun experiment. Those are the things we could do, try new styles, as well as some older ones in new projects, like the Panama Joe in rum barrels. The Oktoberfest, brewing that again was fun.”
Canteen was also able to reach out to its friends in the local beer scene and get together for various adventures.
“Getting back to collaborations, which kind of had gone away for a while, and starting this year off with a collaboration with Marble, Bock Rock n’ Beets,” Guilmette said. “We’re going to end the year with a collab with Villa Myriam, a dark Czech lager with coffee. There’s always new styles, new things, and experimentation. Now you know it can go away when there’s things like a pandemic.”
“It’s even doing the collabs like the one with Steel Bender and High and Dry,” Schwebach added. “I just think I value New Mexico so much. It makes us realize how much a brewery is an integral part of the community. I’m glad we kept all of this alive and surviving and still thriving. It’s not just about the beer, but the people who drink the beer, and what we can do for the community.”
Oh, and not to leave them out of the discussion, Schwebach also provided a quick update on the Canteen Taproom on Tramway.
“Our taproom has been thriving,” she said. “It’s such a different market, where different beers sell differently up there.”
Overall, the Canteen staff were feeling upbeat here as 2021 draws to a close.
“It was so great seeing all the breweries getting back to the things they do well,” Schwebach said. “It’s great seeing what a strong brewing community we have. We’re still seeing growth amongst breweries.”
New beers and events are already in the works for 2022
Most breweries are only putting their plans down on paper in light pencil for the coming year, but Canteen is feeling confident going forward.
“I’ve written some plans in pen,” Schwebach said. “I think we’re going into 2022 cautiously optimistic. We’re kicking off the New Year with our Resolution Maker and Breaker, it’s a 5K benefiting Agora Crisis Center. You make your resolution by running, you break your resolution by drinking. It’s a cheesy fun run where everybody gets a race bib made from a coaster with a red sharpie. For $25, you get a pint of beer, you some pork and sauerkraut, some kale, some donut holes, making and breaking resolutions all day. It’s a fun run, literally.”
Next up on the event list is one that Schwebach has been trying to plan out for a while now, even before COVID arrived.
“We’re going to host a fun Mardi Gras party, (do) some sort of a crawfish-style boil at the end of February, and if I can figure out how to have a parade,” she said. “I want a parade so bad. I just have to figure how to do it.”
Hey, we would love to see a parade up and down Aztec.
“We’re going to work on doing a lager fest at the end of April,” Schwebach said. “We’ll be reaching out to breweries then, and we’re excited. It will be good.
“We’ve got our chile roast for next year, our (other) annual events. I’m trying to make more partnerships, more community involvement, and hopefully more collaborations with other breweries. We’re also really excited that we’re going to relaunch Drink Beer, Save Turtles. We’ll be launching that in May.”
Guilmette, who had darted back to the brewery to snag us some samples of the upcoming rum-barrel-aged Panama Joe, was clearly excited about the prospect of an April lager fest.
“The lager fest, I think it will be great to incorporate some amazing lagers we see around Albuquerque,” he said. “I see breweries and brewers bring their great beers here, and incorporate some of my own. Every event we do, whether it’s Marblefest or Rod Tweet’s Pilsner and Crab Fest (at Second Street Rufina), all of these events are for one thing, to get people together. I think we’ve missed it so much, and we appreciate it even more. IPA Challenge was great to see everybody, get together and talk about the last year, learn how everyone’s doing. Just to create some type of event here that we haven’t had in the past at Canteen, it’s really an effort to get everyone together even more, and just appreciate everybody’s company, share what great beer we have around town and around the state.”
Schwebach said that between the new draft lines setup in the taproom, and a general desire to utilize every inch of space on the property, that as long as government health orders allow it, more and more outdoor events will become coming to the Canteen.
As for that RBA Panama Joe, it was downright exquisite. The only regret that Guilmette and Schwebach had was that they did not come up with the name Pirate Joe before the labels were already printed and shipped out.
“When we get through the initial Joe, we’re probably going to release these the first week of January,” Guilmette said. “When we first got the labels in for this, we realized oh shit, they look like the other ones. So we’re going to sell through the old one, and we’ve only got two cases left, and then onto this one.”
In the end, Guilmette did not wait until January, as the RBA Panama Joe is now available as of today (Tuesday) in four-packs at the brewery, so hurry over, as it is only in cans and not on draft.
Canteen does have a dedicated release calendar in place with Premier Distributing for all of their other upcoming canned beers in 2022.
“We know what we’re releasing in cans,” Schwebach said. “We’re really excited to be releasing Irish Red again in cans (in March). We’re excited to have Sundance Kolsch, (and) the Trail Angel Pale Ale (both in April), benefiting the volunteers in the outdoors.”
Even as Canteen gets more into distribution, the staff will not lose sight of their original mantra.
“We’ve got a new distributor, and I feel like next year will be nice to see how much more growth we will have with distribution,” Guilmette said. “We know what we can do here. Jamie does such a great job with networking, creating events, bringing new people here. I’ve seen growth the last five years. The one thing we haven’t seen is where our beer can grow outside the pub. We’re looking in that direction.”
“We’re still focused on the taproom and the brewhouse, selling pints and actually having that customer engagement,” Schwebach added.
“We’re always going to be a brewpub at heart,” Guilmette continued. “Because that’s who we want to be. We love sitting out here and seeing everybody. We know people here love the pub atmosphere.”
With the crowd increasing in size as we talked, and the band setting up, we wrapped up the interview.
“We’ll see what the year holds,” Schwebach said. “We hope it’s going to be a good year. We think it’s going to be a good year. We hope that our staff is happy. Our sales person is leaving, so we’re going to be looking for a new sales person. But, we’re excited for 2022, and hopefully we emerge stronger from all of this.”
A huge thanks to Zach and Jamie for carving out some time for a proper interview. I really did miss doing these in person last year, and not just because Zoom interviews lack samples of rum-barrel-aged imperial coffee stouts.
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